“On track for driverless bulldozers”

Published on 17/03/2015 in Inspire

“On track for driverless bulldozers”

Komatsu Europe uses IT to develop off-road machines and to improve and accelerate industrial processes. In doing so, CIO Chris Borremans is riding the wave, balancing between the demand for innovation and the rather traditional nature of the market.

At Komatsu, IT can be found in two strategic locations. “Over the years IT has expanded rapidly as a component of the machines that we build,” says Chris Borremans. “Excavators and bulldozers have more IT components than ever incorporated in them to measure performance and collect data about use and wear and tear.” At the same time, IT has developed into an indispensable element in the development of the machines. Borremans provides the example of a holographic representation of a new driving cab, intended to optimize the ergonomics of the design. “That was very convincing,” he says. “This way IT has a major impact on the lead time of the design cycle, a result of which is that we can go into production faster and the machine can be brought to market quicker.”

Traditional working gloves
As the CIO, Borremans concerns himself mainly with the ‘traditional’ application of IT. “Our goal is to perfect processes and cut out unnecessary costs.” The Internet makes a lot of new stuff possible in that respect. There is an online system that links the end customers’ orders – for example for spare parts – through the dealer’s web shop to the Komatsu stock system. That results in smoother processing of the orders, shorter delivery deadlines and, consequently, differentiation with respect to the competition. “At the same time we also need to be realistic about the rather traditional profile of the end-users of our machines,” says Borremans. “They are generally people who are working on a site or in a mine, wearing large working gloves. It’s not always easy to fit the use of tablets and smartphones into that world.”

New era
For the end customer, the IT built into the machine doesn’t make the difference just yet. “The Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) remains the most important argument when making the purchase.” Yet the CIO receives more and more questions from R&D. Borremans: “The questions are about how we can close the feedback loop.” This means IT is gaining an important role. On the one hand, it’s responsible for collecting data about the use of the machines, such as oil temperature, rpm, number of movements, etc. Those data come from hundreds of built-in sensors. On the other hand, IT provides the analysis of the data and its conversion into useful information for the business. “It’s information that R&D could use to solve recurrent failures for example, or that the purchasing department can use to predict the demand for specific components.”

The smart machine
Through its connected machines, Komatsu ends up in the world of the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data. Borremans: “As CIO, you have to make the necessary preparations for that. At present we are seeing an upsurge in the demand for data storage.” Currently, Komatsu is already using the data from machines and the associated analysis to provide extra services to the customer. If the system spots a problem with the oil temperature, then the customer gets the advice to plan a service. “In the near future, we will really be able to speak of a smart machine, where we can control and adjust the machine remotely on the basis of the collected data.” In an analogy to the driverless car, there will probably be driverless dump trucks and bulldozers in the future. “We are just at the beginning of a new era. In about twenty years’ time, we’ll be shocked by all the possibilities.”

3 tips for the CIO

1 Think of the value for the company …
“Technology for the sake of technology adds nothing,” is Borremans’ view. For this reason he recommends that every proposal for an IT project should be examined very critically. “If the idea adds value, then you can, nevertheless, learn much more by digging a bit deeper. If the value is rather doubtful, then further analysis of the proposal will probably bring new insight into particular risks.” At that point, doing so is certainly not a wasted effort, even if the project doesn’t get a green light in the end.

2 … but don’t exaggerate either
Borremans explains, “Some projects are, from the IT perspective, very interesting but don’t add enough to the business. We don’t need to bother with them.” However, as CIO, you have to avoid ending up in an environment about which IT staff are barely enthusiastic. “Consequently, you have to allow employees to have an iPhone, even though BlackBerry would possibly be better for essential business functions, such as e-mail and diary. Those sorts of things can sometimes be a breaking point for some employees. As CIO you mustn’t be too rigid about things either.”

3 Keep a cool head
Borremans notes, “At Komatsu we don’t allow ourselves to be influenced by trends and hypes. What interests us primarily is what technology can add to the company. We’re quite happy to use an old system for video conferencing, but when it comes to a system to monitor stock levels of spare parts, we go for the very best.”

Chris Borremans has worked for Komatsu since 1991. He started his career there as ICT infrastructure manager. Later he moved on to become European ICT manager. Since 2003, he has been CIO for Europe. Komatsu is a Japanese manufacturer of off-road machines and vehicles. The company manufactures excavators, bulldozers and dump trucks for the construction sector, the road-building and mining industries. About 90% of the production is built-to-order. In Europe, Komatsu’s assembly sites can be found in Italy, Great Britain and Germany, as well as other countries. The European headquarters are in Vilvoorde.


One magazine is the Proximus B2B magazine for CIOs and IT professionals in large and medium-sized organisations.

Other articles of One